April 29, 2013

CHIUSANO | NBA Center Jason Collins Speaks Up

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In an emotional and incredibly brave interview for SportsIllustrated.com yesterday, seven-foot NBA center Jason Collins came out to the public, making him the first openly gay male professional athlete who is still active in his sport.

“I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay,” were the first words of Collins’ story, which will be printed in the May 6 issue of Sports Illustrated. In a world of professional sports that has effectively silenced its gay community, Collins has opened the floor for other athletes who have been hiding behind a veil of uncertainty. “I wish I wasn’t the kid in the class raising his hand and saying, ‘I’m different,’” Collins wrote. “If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I’m raising my hand.”

Collins tells his story through a series of heart-wrenching accounts, beginning with his decision to first come out to his Aunt Teri, who comforted him by saying she had known for many years. Though Collins has a twin brother — Jerron Collins, who followed him from Stanford into the NBA — he decided not to come out to his brother until last summer. Though Jerron was more surprised than their Aunt Terri, Collins said that, “he was full of brotherly love. For the first time in our lives, he wanted to step in and protect me.” Behind the support of a family that he called “close-knit,” Collins was able to make the ultimate decision to come out to the rest of the world. “I shouldn’t have to live under the threat of being outed,” he said. “The announcement should be mine to make, not TMZ’s.”

Though Collins is the first active openly gay male player, the topic of gay athletes in professional sports has become increasingly prevalent. Only a few weeks ago, women’s college basketball star and number one pick in the WNBA draft — Brittany Griner — spoke about her sexuality in an interview with Sports Illustrated. Just two months before that, professional soccer player Robbie Rogers came out in a letter that he posted to his website, which also announced his decision to leave professional soccer.

For Griner, the announcement was much less publicized, and seemed to come more naturally to the 6’8” center who recently graduated from Baylor. When asked about the decision to come out as a famous athlete, Griner said, “It really wasn’t too difficult; I wouldn’t say I was hiding or anything like that. I’ve always been open about who I am and my sexuality.”

Griner’s reply poses a truly unexplainable double standard between the acceptance of openly gay female and male athletes. When asked about this, Griner replied, “I really couldn’t give an answer on why that’s so different. Being one that’s out, it’s just being who you are.” Why is it that in the male world of professional sports, athletes find it so much harder to be who they are?

The aggressiveness of the male sports world certainly does not help. In sports that breed male athletes who want to hit people, who want to create contact, who are forced to fight each other, there seems to be no room for homosexuality. In an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, Gregory Herek — a psychologist at UC Davis — said, “Men are raised to think they have to prove their masculinity, and one big part about being masculine is being heterosexual.” There is a culture around professional sports — especially ones that have no female counterparts like the NFL and NHL — as being “a man’s game.” There is no place for femininity, there is no place for feelings, and therefore there is no place for homosexuals.

What is so important about Collins’ story is that it shatters these stereotypes. Never known for being the most talented player on the court, Collins’ grit was what made him a great NBA player. “On the court I graciously accept one label sometimes bestowed on me: ‘the pro’s pro.’ … I take charges and I foul — that is my forte. I enter the court knowing I have six hard fouls to give,” he said. Collins led the NBA in personal fouls in the 2005 season. He is not afraid to take a hit and he is not afraid to give one. So what difference does his sexuality make, if he is willing to sacrifice everything, including his body, for his teammates? After all, that is the true culture of professional sports.

Collins’ announcement comes just three days after Rhode Island’s senate voted in favor of legislation to allow same-sex marriage, making it the final state in New England to do so. Clearly, there are strides being made in the right direction for gay rights. Still, though, 31 states have enacted Constitutional amendments barring same-sex marriage, and the Supreme Court remains apprehensive about passing legislation. In the world of sports, some athletes remain intolerant — San Jose Earthquakes’ forward Alan Gordon was recently suspended for calling an opponent a “faggot.”

There is still work to be done when it comes to universalizing the acceptance of homosexual athletes in the world of sports, and it starts well before the professional level. I know from experience that even in high school sports and below, there is a stigma around gay athletes. On my high school baseball team, there was a group of about five of us who were extremely close. We did everything together, including sharing the same beds on road trips and putting five people in a room that should have only fit two. To my knowledge, none of us were or are homosexual. Nonetheless, our coach often told us we needed to act less “gay,” that we touched each other too much. My response was, and remains, who cares? If one of us were gay, it would not have changed the way we performed on the field. It would not have changed how much we cared about winning baseball games. It would not have changed how much time, how much love we put into the sport. It would not have changed how close we were. Collins embodied this feeling perfectly, saying “I sacrifice myself for other players. I look out for my teammates as I would my kid brother.”

It still eludes me why professional sports continue to lag behind society. The world is changing its views on homosexuality and same-sex marriage, and professional sports are only just beginning to join the party. I recently watched the movie 42, the story of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier. Baseball once shut African Americans out, but the game is now incredibly integrated, thanks to Mr. Robinson. I’m not saying that Jason Collins will be the next Jackie Robinson, although he very well might be. What I’m saying is that Collins opened a door, just like Robinson did. Gay athletes in the sports world should no longer be afraid to show who they really are, because it is not, and never has been, an embarrassment. Collins has proven that. When asked about having an openly gay player on his team, Collins’ former coach Doc Rivers said, “I think it would be terrific for the league. More than anything, it would just be terrific for mankind, my gosh.”

Here’s to hoping that Jason Collins is not the last athlete to raise his hand.

Original Author: Scott Chiusano